As set out in the amemdment of the EU Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste from 2015, the European Commission was tasked to assess the impacts of so-called “oxo-degradable” plastics on the environment and propose “a set of measures to limit their consumption or to reduce any harmful impacts“. To inform the Commission’s decision making process, a comprehensive impact study has been contracted out to Eunomia, an independent environmental consultancy based in the UK. The results of Eunomia’s report on “The Impact of the Use of “Oxo-degradable” Plastic on the Environment” are very clear in concluding that oxo-degradable plastics should not be allowed to be sold in Europe.
The report confirms that oxo-degradable plastics – referred to as pro-oxidant additive containing (PAC) plastics – are “not suitable for any form of composting and Anaerobic Digestion process”. There is still substantial doubt – due to a lack of evidence – as to whether they do biodegrade fully or within reasonable time, not to mention the risk of potential toxic effects on soils of the pro-oxidant additives. Other major concerns are raised with regard to the recyclability of PAC plastics as they can not be identified and sorted separately with current technologies and therefore can negatively affect the quality of recyclate and recycled plastic products. “Evidence suggests that oxidised PAC plastics can significantly impair the physical qualitites and service life of the recycled product” and “recyclate made from mixtures containing PAC plastic should not be used fro long-life products”.
Oxo-degradable plastics are conventional plastics, such as High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), commonly used in carrier bags, which also include additives which are designed to promote the oxidation of the material to the point where it embrittles and fragments. It has been debated for some time whether or not these additives perform in the way in which their manufacturers claim they will, whether they cause harm to the environment, and whether they effectively make plastics recycling more problematic. (Eunomia, 2017)
There is currently no suitable certification available in Europe to make sure PAC plastics will perform appropriately in the markets to which they are sold, and in the environments they may end up. The report therefore concludes that the European Commission should make the development of (a set of) European standards, including strict pass/fail criteria for the toxicological tests, an absolute priority. In the meantime, the report concludes, “the PAC plastics industry should be prevented from selling their products”.
European Bioplastics has long been warning about the potentially harmful effects of oxo-degradable plastics on the environment as well as the potential damage to the reputation and image of truly biodegradable plastics. Several cases of greenwashing and false claims have been reported over the past years that have lead to confusion and misunderstanding about biodegradation in the general public. In the light of the latest results of the report, EUBP calls on the European Commission to suspend the production, sale and use of oxo-degradable plastics in Europe until appropriate standards, standardised regulation of nomenclature, and suitable certification schemes are available.